I haven’t had a lot of good to say about the USA during the last four years. But even before the disastrous 2016 presidential election, the nightmare version of the American Dream was frequently on my mind. My otherwise good, supportive parents as the children of immigrants and adults during the Great Depression had an overly high regard for the elixir quality of money. My sister was counseled to “marry well,” and the notable investment in my private education—four years at boarding school followed by four more at Yale—was primarily so I could become a well-paid professional. Alas for them, my sister was widowed at 40 by her middle-manager husband in Argentina, and I became a member of a notably poorly paid profession, college teaching.
A Boulder-based videographer has been doing 15-minute videos on the life and work of "creatives" in the Rocky Mountains region of our spiritual organization, Subud. The video about me as a writer/teacher has just come out, the 5th in this series. I think it turned out quite well, so I wanted to share it with you here. Enjoy! Ren Ruslan
Right now, just ten days from Christmas in this year of our Covid, 2020, my church, St. John’s Episcopal in Boulder, Colorado, is doing a weekly Bible Study on the Acts of the Apostles. About 20 of us Zoom in each Wednesday morning while a clergy or lay leader facilitates a 75-minute discussion on the two chapters assigned for the week in question. This Wednesday is the last session before the Holidays. We’ll finish up sometime in January.
Sometimes I wonder—more frequently in the last four years than at any time since the Vietnam War. Here are two provocative sets of statistics. Set 1: With just 4.25% of the world’s population (updated 12/3/2020 by worldometers.info), the United States has 21.2% of the world’s documented Covid cases, including 18% of Covid deaths (updated 12/3/2020 by the World Health Organization: covid19.who.int). Set 2: With just 4.25% of the world’s population (reference above), the United States has 20% of the world’s prison population (as of 1/16/2020 per prisonpolicy.org). How parallel these two datasets are! I should also mention that people of color are much more likely to be incarcerated than white people. (This is especially true of Black men.) According to the NAACP, African Americans are more than five times more likely than whites to be imprisoned (naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/).
In this pre-Covid-vaccine Thanksgiving, being grateful is not so easy. Still, there is a time-honored medicine you can start taking now: the gratitude pill. First, tradition. Meister Eckhart, the German Dominican theologian, philosopher, and mystic who died around 1327, famously said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” The modern version of Eckhart’s advice is counting our blessings. When we regularly follow this practice, we come to realize how much we have to be thankful for and can live a happy, or happier, life. In achieving this goal, we often think of those less fortunate than we are. “I complained that I had no shoes until I met someone who had no feet,” goes the saying.
Why is this Thanksgiving unlike all other Thanksgivings? Well, for all other Thanksgivings, families gather in large numbers over elaborately prepared turkey dinners. But Thanksgiving 2020 is happening during an unprecedented surge in Covid 19. The careful and the cautious are staying home. Enough traditional gatherings will take place, however, to create millions of superspreader events, unintentionally honoring our maskless—and clueless— outgoing President.
Some of you are old enough to remember Science. It’s something virtually all of us used to believe in before the advent of a religion called Trumpianity. Now, not so much. But back in the day when this 81-year-old was learning about the world, he was taught that science and the scientific method comprised the best way to know what was what and what wasn’t. Anyway, in a newspaper supplement, the November 2020 issue of Spry Living, I was astonished to read a little article, “Why You Need to Wise Up.” “People with compassion,” I read, “are less lonely…"
And the Trumpette shall tweet
And Republicans shall tremble.
They’ll even dissemble
To keep him around.
But Biden will beat him.
Joe Biden will beat him.
The Lord has spoken:
Your country is broken.
But I have spoken.
And now he’ll go away.
Dear Q, where are you?
Where are you? Where are you?
Please tell us, please tell us.
Please tell us what to think.
Our head is in the drink.
Their realities, they stink!
You said he’d be elected.
Oh boy, are we dejected!
Our man has been rejected.
How could you be so wrong?
But I have spoken.
Your country, it was broken.
That Q was a deceiver.
But Biden’s a good leader.
He’ll save your land for me.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I took a mini-vacation of four nights to a guest ranch in nearby Wyoming, just two-and-a-half hours away by car. A main attraction turned out to be the night sky. Unlike in our Boulder, Colorado (pop. 110,000), you could really see the stars there: not just the first-magnitude ones as at home, but even the Milky Way in all its star-studded glory.
This little essay, however, is not about astral bodies. Rather, as I approach my 81st birthday on November 6th, a week from this writing, I’m thinking about the well-known people I’ve been fortunate to have met in my life.
The assigned Gospel passage in our church for the Feast of All Saints’ Day is Matthew 5:1-12, AKA the Beatitudes. Sunday School kids are sometimes taught to refer to them as the Be-Attitudes, a useful misunderstanding of the term. Actually, the theological expression comes from the Latin beatus, -a, -um, meaning “blessed” or “saintly.” It’s a fitting concept, and Gospel passage, for All Saints’ Day.
Forgive me! This is a subject I’ve written on before. Still, I consider it so important in today’s world of divisions and divisiveness that I am doing so again. In this morning’s Old Testament Lesson in our Episcopal Church we read in Leviticus 19, in the mid-teen verses, “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin. . . . You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
As a resident in beautiful, mountainous Colorado, I totally get my fellow Coloradans who say they prefer taking a hike in our Front Range to going to church. They feel something in the silence of 10,000 feet that they don’t in a brick-and-mortar building where lots of words are spoken, many old-fashioned terms about a deity and other beings they have no mental or emotional contact with. Today, I had such an experience myself, although granted I am a regular attendee at and enthusiastic member of Boulder’s historic St. John’s Episcopal Church.
As part of my continuing education as a white American and thus a beneficiary of systemic racism, I am reading a helpful, hard-hitting book by the mixed-race author-activist Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk about Race (Seal Press, 2019). In it she asks her readers, especially the white ones, to undertake a simple yet daunting task: To reflect on their privilege in 21st-century America. My list numbers 30 items and counting.
My wife, Dr. Cedar Barstow, is busy this week teaching her “basic” course,” “Right Use of Power—The Heart of Ethics.” She’s been offering it for years, not only here in Boulder, Colorado, but around the U.S. and in a dozen countries abroad. But this year is different for two reasons. First, it’s late-September 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. So, this is the first time she’s presented it virtually via Zoom. She has some 31 students from five or six countries. Second, as her 76th birthday nears, it’s her last time offering this annual training—a huge milestone since, as a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander, she finds retirement about as comfortable as eating a full bowl of very hot kim chee.
Cedar and I were on Tinaja Ridge, above Lyons, Colorado, for an all-day outdoor retreat honoring the Fall Equinox. The morning walk was brief, just 30 minutes. I began by greeting the pine tree next to the one I had hugged the last time we were here. I thanked it out loud for being a role model of steadfastness for me. After a few snapshots on my trusty iPhone 6-Plus, I headed downhill maybe 60 yards into a frozen avalanche of pinecones.
Now children—Let’s make some SENTENCES!
Between the movie and various theatrical presentations, I must have seen FIDDLER ON THE ROOF ten or more times. After all, it’s the story of my people. I know most of the lines and lyrics by heart. Each time I see it, I cry. All four of my grandparents came from shtetls like Tevye’s Anatevka, little Jewish enclaves within villages and towns in Eastern and Central Europe from which pogroms or inscription into the czar’s army had driven them. They arrived in the new promised land of America in the decade before the turn of the 20th Century. Israel was not yet available. None spoke English.
New Thought visionary Alan Cohen provides his “Daily Inspiration” bits of wisdom online. You can request them without charge at firstname.lastname@example.org. They arrive every morning in your inbox. What he offers is a sentence or two of sage advice, either from someone else, often a famous person from the past or present, or from himself. Today’s (8/28/20200), one of the latter, struck me as especially thought-provoking: “Your life is a series of opportunities to become yourself.” Indeed. We’ve been down this path before in these weekly blogs. My metaphor for getting there is the pilgrimage, the step-by-step struggle to reach a sacred destination. My wife’s and my walking 120 miles of the Camino to the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago de Campostela, Spain, in 2017 comes to mind.
That’s what the late Fr. Raymond O., an Anglican priest, called our shared spiritual practice, Subud. The concept to be sure is presumptuous. How can anyone snap their fingers and have God? It’s not a matter of adding hot water and stirring.
The concept of transaction is probably value neutral. After all, the verb transact means to make an exchange of equal value. I give you this; you give me that. We each walk away happy. Business is all about transactions. Your money for my good or service. My good or service for your money. It’s all perfectly legal, not to mention American. As Calvin Coolidge famously remarked, “The business of this country is business.” We’re a country built on transactions.
If I were czar of U.S. Education, I’d require every American under 25 to spend a year abroad. Some American colleges, especially well-regarded liberal-arts schools, have such a requirement for bachelor’s-degree candidates already. Of course, there would need to be scholarship funds or work-for-travel arrangements—the Peace Corps and peace-time overseas military deployment come to mind—to ensure that working-class kids and not just the better-off get to go abroad. Then there are nearby places like Mexico, French Canada, Puerto Rico, and Indian/First Nations reservations that are less expensive to get to yet still culturally and/or linguistically diverse enough to make an educational difference for the study-abroad participant.
“The essence of philosophy is that a person should so live that their happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.” Thus said Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher who lived from c. 50 to 135 C.E. He was born a slave in modern-day Turkey, later lived in Rome, and was banished to northwestern Greece, where he died at the ripe old age of 85. One of his students wrote down his ideas in several books. According to Wikipedia, Epictetus taught that “philosophy is a way of life and not just a theoretical discipline. To Epictetus, all external events are beyond our control; we should accept calmly and dispassionately whatever happens. However, individuals are responsible for their own actions, which they can examine and control through rigorous self-discipline.”
Zoe, our ten-year-old calico cat, is monumentally unbothered by the pandemic. She lives in an alternate universe where, so long as food miraculously appears at 7 am, noon, and 5 pm, all is well. When the spirit moves her, she goes outside. In the evening she’ll decide whether to make a night of it or stay in my home office instead. Weather is generally a consideration. Wind and thunder are big deterrents. During the day she’ll find just the right spot in the house to take an extended nap. Sometimes, though, she’ll go out, even if she’s already been out all night. She catches the occasional bunny in the interest of keeping their overweening population in check. She’s nothing if not environmentally conscious.
In response to the Black Lives Matter protests, we white people have answered with the truism, “All lives matter.” In fact, with a bow to the Green movement, all life matters, or should. But that’s the point. All life doesn’t and all lives don’t. Not at least to those of us who have lucked out to be born with cultural silver spoons in our mouths: money, two-parent families, a nice neighborhood, the best public schools, and—by a total quirk of fate—white skin. There’s not much room at the top, the thinking goes, and those of us, through no virtue of our own, who happened to be born in the upper reaches of the social hierarchy have little incentive to make room for those below us, let alone to give them a hand up. In a society based on social Darwinism, your win is paid for by my loss. We white Americans live in a gated community of the mind if not of heart and soul. Stay in your place so I can stay in mine seems our belief.
Okay, English majors of the world: For $100, what’s the literary allusion here? The opening line of Melville’s Moby Dick? That’s right! Send that contestant one hundred crisp new greenbacks! Melville’s classic begins with the narrator advising the reader to call him Ishmael. So, what’s that got to do with the spot price of coffee in Brazil or anything else? Nothing and everything. Read on.